For most of France, Aug. 25, 1944, was the joyous day that Allied troops liberated Paris from the Nazis. For this village in the Loire valley, it was a day of horror...
Retreating German troops massacred 124 of Maille's 500 residents then razed the town, possibly in retaliation for Resistance action in the region, according to local archives. Forty-four children were among the dead, the youngest just 4 months old.
Now a German investigator is drawing new attention to the forgotten chapter of World War II. Dortmund prosecutor Ulrich Maass began a three-day visit to Maille on Tuesday to interview survivors and dig through archives as part of his probe into the killings.
"I am ashamed about what the Germans did here, and I apologize," Maass told townspeople.
Mauricette Garnier, who was 9 at the time, recalled that when local people heard gunfire that day, many initially thought it was part of the celebrations as news traveled from Paris about the liberation.
Her mother and two brothers were among those slain in the village.
"I saw them slit the throat of my 20-month-old brother, and kill my mother at close range," she said. "I will never forgive. This inquiry comes much too late."
A Nazi officer, Gustav Schlueter, was convicted in absentia for his role in the killings by a military court in Bordeaux in 1952. Maass, who has been investigating the case since 2004, said Schlueter died at home in Germany in 1965. Other soldiers' roles remain unclear.
Philippe Varin, prosecutor in the nearby French city of Tours, said Maass and a police superintendent from the German city of Stuttgart would have help from French gendarmes as they try to identity Nazi units and any individuals with a role in the massacre.
He said it was "the first time a German judicial delegation has come on French soil to carry out investigations into war crimes."
In Germany, it is not unusual for investigators to probe crimes going back to Nazi days. In one current case, German prosecutors plan to seek the extradition of alleged former Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk from the United States to prosecute him on charges that he was involved in killing Jewish prisoners at the Sobibor death camp.
Any suspects in the Maille case could be charged with murder - the only World War II-era crime on which the statute of limitations has not elapsed in Germany.
Townspeople have long said retaliation was the motive for the attack, and Maass said that was his main hypothesis. Claude Daumin, who was 10 at the time, said the event that triggered the massacre was the killing of an SS officer and his driver by local Resistance fighters.
"For 64 years, everybody knows what happened - these were reprisals," he said. "And they are saying so only now. It doesn't do any good."
The massacre in Maille was the second worst atrocity in Nazi-occupied France, after the Germans killed 642 men, women and children at Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944 - four days after the D-Day landings in Normandy.
Maille was rebuilt after the war, but Oradour-sur-Glane remains a phantom village, with burned-out cars and abandoned buildings left as testimony to its history. The town's fate is widely taught in French schools, while Maille's has largely been forgotten.
"You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of books that mention the massacre in Maille," said historian Sebastien Chevereau, who runs Maille's museum and archives. Now, "at least, the suffering of the inhabitants is being recognized."